Rio Grande Rafting to Regain Pride of Place as Portland’s Premier Tourist Attraction


Over the years, rafting on the Rio Grande River has been a major attraction for locals and visitors to Portland. The experience provides patrons with a glimpse of what the parish has to offer in terms of natural beauty and allows them to enjoy the exquisiteness of the one of a kind attraction.
Rafting on the Rio Grande dates as far back as 1911, when banana farmers in the Rio Grande Valley developed the practise as a means of transporting their bananas to the town of St. Margaret’s Bay where the river ends, and from there it could be easily taken to the Boundbrook Wharf in Port Antonio for export.
However, several stories have been told of people rafting on the Rio Grande for the sheer pleasure of the experience.
One such story tells of a visitor to the Rio Grande Valley who decided to take the trip to St. Margaret’s Bay on one of the rafts transporting bananas, after being lost and unable to find his way to Port Antonio. As the story goes, the visitor found the experience to be a thoroughly enjoyable one and worked extensively to influence other persons to follow his lead and take the trip.
Assuming that the tale is true, that effort has borne fruit significantly since that time, because over the years, rafting on the Rio Grande has become not only a major attraction for the parish of Portland, but also one of the major pillars on which Jamaica is marketed as a tourist destination.
Several persons and organizations have played critical roles in the effort to develop rafting on the Rio Grande as an attraction and commercial venture over the years.
Chief among them is the Jamaica Welfare Association founded in the 1940s by late Prime Minister Norman Manley and the late film star Errol Flynn, both of whom did extensive work to organize the raftsmen into a fraternity, and to ensure that the attraction continued to be a major feature of Portland.
Since becoming a fully developed attraction, several organizations including the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), the Jamaica Attractions Development Company and the Rio Grande Attractions have had the responsibility for its operation at different times.
Currently, that responsibility resides with the Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo), which since August 1999, has been responsible for the day-to-day running of the facility, through its subsidiary, Rio Grande Tours.
A tour of Rio Grande consists of a two to three hour ride down the river on bamboo rafts operated by licensed, skilled raftsmen who double as tour guides. The rafts are 10 metres (33 feet) in length, built to the specifications of the River Rafting Authority Act and licensed to carry two passengers on a trip.
The cost of the trip is US$45 per couple and it commences when the visitor boards the two seat bamboo raft at either the raft stand at Berrydale or Grant’s Level in the Rio Grande Valley south of Port Antonio, and concludes 7.2 kilometres (12 miles) downstream at Rafter’s Rest in St. Margaret’s Bay at the mouth of the Rio Grande River. For patrons with motor vehicles, drivers are provided to return the vehicles to Rafters Rest. A total of 120 raftsmen are contracted to operate the rafts.
The success of Rio Grande rafting has stimulated the creation of other river rafting attractions on the north coast as visitors’ demand for the product pushed the need for alternative locations to satisfy guests in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, who were unable to travel the distance to Portland.
So popular has rafting become that a Jamaica Tourist Board’s visitor satisfaction survey of 1997, listed river rafting attractions are the second most visited attractions in the country, with 397 visitors daily, behind Dunn’s River Falls with 1,506 visitors.An analysis of the visitors who raft down the Rio Grande indicate that the main market segment are nature lovers, 35 years and older, with middle to upper incomes. They are mainly stay over visitors from Port Antonio, Ocho Rios and Kingston and account for 85 per cent of the business, with walk-ins accounting for the other 15 per cent.
One regular patron is Olive Kinlocke from London, England who never misses an opportunity to go rafting whenever she visits Jamaica. She describes the experience as one of her favourite, and gives the assurance that she will always visit for rafting, if for no other reason.
Wendy Williams of Port Antonio has gone rafting several times and is equally excited about the experience and says she will continue to go rafting for as long as she can.
Although still a vibrant operation, Rio Grande rafting has not in recent years been achieving the level of success with which it was associated in earlier times.
Among the factors accounting for this reality are the declining fortunes, which the tourist industry in Portland has been experiencing over the years, and the reduction in business due to the emergence of rafting attractions in other locations across the country.
Residents of Berrydale and other communities, who depend a lot on rafting for their economic well being, look back with pride on the contribution the attraction had made to the development of the lives of the people of the area, while lamenting the declining fortunes that have been affecting it in recent times.
Shirley Anderson, who has been living in the community for the past 20 years, still remembers the days when she and other residents of the area could depend on rafting for their economic survival. She recalls the booming years of the 1960s and 1970s and despite her disappointment with the downturn that has taken place, she is confident that the situation will improve.
Similar sentiments have been expressed by the raftsmen themselves, some of whom have been involved in the business since the 1950s.
Both Amos Bunting and Nathaniel Bell have been conducting rafting in the Rio Grande since 1954, and as such were integral to the booming success, which attended the attraction in former years.
They both contend that the fallout began with the decline in the tourist industry in Portland in the middle of the 1970’s as a result of a scaling down in cruise ship calls to Port Antonio, and a reduction in the general tourist arrivals to the town. They are confident however, that business will get better if current plans to improve tourism in Port Antonio are successful.
Speaking about the improvement effort, Michael Muirhead, Chairman of TPDCo tells JIS News that there are plans to divest the attraction. “It is at the stage where a request for proposal is being prepared and this will go out to tender in February,” he says.
He informs that the divestment is aimed at improving the facility and to make it self-sufficient. “We are seeking to ensure that it is an enhanced facility. Apart from rafting on the river itself, we would like it to have other amenities, which would enhance the rafting experience for the tourists doing that particular tour,” he says.
Additionally, Mr. Muirhead says that TPDCo is committed to reducing the level of illegal rafting through a licensing drive. “Our move will be through the River Rafting Authority to put controls and measures in place to reduce the illegal rafting that is taking place on the river,” he says.
Current efforts by a number of government organizations and private sector entities to resuscitate the tourism industry in Portland and to improve Port Antonio’s appeal as a tourist destination are also serving to fuel optimism about the future of rafting.
The assumption is that if the parish regains the status of being a major tourist destination, it will attract visitors in sufficient numbers not only to achieve a significant boost to its economy, but will also bring about a vast improvement in the fortunes of the rafting activities by virtue of the automatic increase that will occur in the amount of people who would enjoy the attraction.
To this end, the newly established Port Antonio Marina built by the Port Authority of Jamaica is expected to play a major role in attracting mega yachts and cruise ships to Port Antonio.
Already, a number of cruise liners have made calls at the Ken Wright Pier as a result of the combined efforts of the Port Authority of Jamaica, the Jamaica Tourist Board and Tourism interests in Port Antonio.
The Port Authority of Jamaica has also given the assurance that it is fully committed to continuing the process of having dialogue with cruise line companies with a view to having them add Port Antonio to their list of destinations.
Other initiatives are being undertaken to improve Port Antonio’s appearance and appeal including a clean up and beautification programme being conducted in collaboration with the Port Authority and the Portland Chamber of Commerce, and the resuscitation and improvement of a number of the parish’s attractions by the TPDCo.
Although these developments are likely to result in increased visitor arrivals to Port Antonio, there is also the need to take initiatives, which will improve and expand the product if Rio Grande rafting is to regain the support and patronage it enjoyed in the past.
Recognizing this, Mr. Muirhead says there are plans for product expansion including moonlight rafting providing an optimal shorter trip for one hour, wedding and honeymoon packages, and the establishment of a bed and breakfast accommodation. Rafters Rest also has the potential to offer alternative food and beverage facilities to locals and visitors.
Portland’s potential for tourism development is unlimited, and it is obvious that any growth in that area will have a domino effect on other sectors.The entire parish is fully confident that once the development process begins, then rafting on the Rio Grande will once again regain pride of place as Portland’s premier visitor attraction.

JIS Social